No one likes pain and suffering, but oftentimes it’s even harder to watch people we love suffer. We want to take it away and fix the problem, or offer them opinions and “solutions” to make things better. This is especially true for those who carry the heavy burden of infertility. Something that is much more difficult to do, but can be so meaningful, is to just be present to them. Being a good friend, offering your prayers, and loving them means more than we may think. Don’t worry about what to say, or finding the “perfect words” to make the one in pain feel better. Sometimes fewer words, or simply a smile and a hug, are all that is needed.
Here are some suggestions for those instances when you may want to say something to someone who shares their struggle with infertility.
“I’m sorry you’re going through that.”
What matters to us is that we have family and friends to support us on this journey by offering an ear to listen, providing a shoulder on which to cry, and joining us in prayers.
When you acknowledge that you are sorry that we are going through the experience of infertility, you show us that you have sympathy for our situation and that you care. It also takes the burden off of you—the burden of needing to find a solution for us.
When you offer us solutions, although this shows you want to help (which we greatly appreciate), you may not be considering that we have been trying everything that aligns with Church teaching to bring children into the world. Also, phrases like, “Why don’t you try…?” can be interpreted as placing the responsibility on us to procreate; when in fact, it is God’s will, not ours, that makes possible the gift of life.
“I would love to hear about what you’re experiencing, if you are comfortable sharing.”
If you are looking for a way to support a loved one with infertility, consider asking us how this experience is impacting us, and listen carefully to what we share, without trying to come up with a “perfect” response. We may wish to be asked how we’re doing so that we have a chance to express the difficulty of this infertility journey. We often feel alone as we watch so many other families with babies and children, and mourn the absence of the child(ren) we hoped for. When others don’t ask how we are doing we can feel forgotten, and this can amplify our sense of isolation. Please do not assume we don’t want to talk! Ask and give us the space to talk about it, or not. Our silence isn’t a lack of appreciation, but most likely just pain. Just be there for us, because we may be more open to talking in the future.
If we do decide to talk about our experience, consider using active listening, which is being fully present and striving to understand the complexity of emotions we may be feeling. This kind of listening involves paying attention, showing your interest through non-verbal communication like good eye contact and head nodding, asking questions for elaboration, and offering summaries of the main points you’ve heard us share. It is not trying to fix the problem or sharing others’ stories – or your own – which might seem helpful, but can be perceived as discounting our experience. It may be uncomfortable, at first, to refrain from doing or suggesting anything to “solve” the issue of infertility, or to avoid offering silver linings to “cheer us up,” but rest assured that accompanying us and actively listening to us is one of the best things you can do to help.
By allowing us to choose whether to talk about our infertility journey, you provide us a small bit of control in a situation in which we often feel powerless. You may even consider adding the question, “What may I do to support you during this struggle right now?” Even if we do not have an answer at that moment (since the emotional response to infertility is complex and constantly changing), it is encouraging to us simply that you ask.
“I know you have a surgery coming up. What can I do to support you?”
As couples experiencing infertility, we often remain private about our struggles and do not share about significant trying moments because of the shame we feel and the invalidation of pain that we may have experienced from others in the past.
When you are made aware of an upcoming infertility trial that we have, like a surgery, consider that it is always a special privilege to be invited into a loved one’s suffering.
Also know that even though we may not have children, we still have real human needs. Surgeries, tests, medications, and procedures often exacerbate the challenges that are already present, as recovery time or side effects of medications can leave us in physical pain, restricted in certain activities, or emotionally drained. When you learn that we have a surgery or fresh round of treatments coming up, consider acknowledging our legitimate physical needs through an action like offering to bring us a meal. And of course, know that we greatly appreciate your support of us spiritually with your prayers.
“How can I honor your baby’s life?”
Some of us who are in a season of infertility also carry the cross of the grief of miscarriage or stillbirth. It’s a complicated comingling of grief, so when someone acknowledges that our baby’s life matters, we feel much less alone.
Sometimes, people do not know how to bring up our loss, but just know that the memory of our child never leaves us. It comforts us to know that other people remember and value our child. Though we may never have gotten the opportunity to meet or raise our child, and though our child’s body has died, their soul is immortal, and they are just as much a person as you or me. As Catholics, we believe all children are gifts, whether we were entrusted with that gift for a short while or a lifetime. We love when someone else celebrates the gift of our child with us. It also helps us when someone honors our child by saying their name or praying for their intercession.
It’s hard and hurtful when someone dismisses the life of our child by merely focusing on the fact that we were pregnant. We know they are trying to comfort us or offer hope, but saying “at least you know you can get pregnant” stings; after all, we are not in control of our fertility, and there is no guarantee we will conceive again. The child we conceived and lost wasn’t some milestone on the journey to the goal of parenthood; our child is precious, irreplaceable and treasured by God. Future pregnancies and the opportunity to raise children may or may not come, but we will always be mothers and fathers. Our child’s existence, for however short a time, is a true gift and worthy of being honored.
“God is with you, even when you don’t feel Him there.”
In the midst of any trial, it can be easy to lose sight of God’s presence and love, even though we know that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:19).
When you remind us of God’s presence in this way, you show us that you understand the profound paradox we confront: that God is close to us and loves us—even, and perhaps especially, when we feel broken and abandoned because of our infertility. Such words encourage us to both acknowledge the reality of our grief and pain, and to keep faith in God’s loving plan for our lives, even if that plan looks different than we anticipated.
These words mean so much more than just saying “offer it up” ever could. We know that Christ generously invites us to join our suffering with His as a share in His saving work; but when we are feeling most anguished and abandoned, we may not yet have the strength to make a sacrificial offering of our pain. Your simple reminder to us that God is there, even if we don’t “feel” Him, is a balm to our aching hearts and an encouragement in our relationship with God, the only One who can ultimately fulfill our deepest longings.
“How can I pray for you? I would be honored to help you carry your cross in this way.”
Prayer is powerful, and especially so when we pray for someone going through a difficult time. The cross of infertility is physically and emotionally draining, but it can also negatively affect us spiritually. In our frustration, worry and grief, we may feel like God has forgotten us; or we may believe lies from the devil that we are unworthy of God’s gifts, or unloved by Him. We may even find it difficult or impossible to pray. If we’ve suffered the loss of a child, we may be feeling angry at God, or confused about how He is working (or not working) in our lives. Although it may not feel as if you’re really doing something, your prayers carry us when we don’t have the strength or the words to reach out to God. Ask us what particular intentions we have at the moment, and let us know that you will pray.
Praying for the gift of pregnancy and the birth of a healthy child is wonderful! We would appreciate your asking God for this gift. However, please take care in how you communicate this to us. Be hopeful and optimistic, but be careful not to “make promises” that are out of your control. Statements like “God can do miracles, and I just know that if we keep praying He’ll work a miracle for you!” may seem comforting (and we know ours is a God of miracles), but they can end up hurting us more if the sought-after miracle does not come to pass.
Know that we need to be lifted up in all aspects of our infertility walk: as we discern treatment, or decide to take a break or discontinue trying to conceive. We need prayers for our marriage, that we will nurture each other and strive to communicate well. Ask God to give us peace as we make decisions, and the grace to see that He has a beautiful plan of fruitfulness for us, whether that means welcoming children into our home, or loving and caring for others.
“Your marriage is so life-giving!”
When we are struggling with infertility, we can feel as though our marriage is barren unless or until we have children. By pointing out specific ways in which you have witnessed our married love blessing others, you can help us recognize how we are already fruitful, regardless of if, when, or how we become parents.
This also respects God’s unique plan and timing for each couple. Encouraging us in this way is much more helpful than suggesting we “just adopt.” Although adoption may seem like a logical next step, this suggestion glosses over the complexities of both adoption and infertility. We are aware that adoption is a possible way of becoming parents, but it is never a cure for infertility.
Reminding us of the ways in which our marriage is already life-giving, while giving us the time and space we need to discern God’s unique plans for our fruitfulness, is a beautiful way of showing your love and support.